The word dua means many things in Albanian — want, need, love — which is exactly the sentiment owner Alexandra Lulaj hopes to embody with her store DUA Gourmet Market, located inside of the historic Arthur Avenue Market in the Bronx’s Little Italy.
DUA sells Balkan and Italian items like dried pasta, olive oils, canned fish, meats and cheeses — such as kashkaval and feta. Not only that, italso offers imported baklava and bakes donuts every Saturday, with the Nutella variety as its best seller. Lulaj and her team also do something no one else in the neighborhood is doing — they make fresh zeppoles daily.
“You only see them seasonally at fairs. It’s something everybody loves,” said Lulaj.
When DUA opened last year, it replaced Mount Carmel Gourmet Foods, which served the neighborhood for 14 years. But before closing, and in a true sense of community, Mount Carmel’s owners recommended their day-one worker Blanca to Lulaj.
“I’ve already been used to the neighborhood,” said Blanca in Spanish. “I feel good with [Alexandra]. She’s good people.”
Blanca, who did not disclose her last name, lives nearby and walks to work.
She is also able to have her daughter sit in the market and do homework as she works the counter. With many people unable to afford childcare, there’s a warm understanding between Lulaj and her employee.
Lulaj, 27, has a kind demeanor and a permanent smile. She works the market six days a week — they are closed on Sundays.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I wasn’t here every day,” said Lulaj.
She graduated from Mercy College with a degree in business administration and worked on the corporate side of the White Plains YMCA. When Lulaj learned of the vacancy in the famed Arthur Avenue Market, she ran it by her uncle who is also her personal inspiration.
“He said, ‘I believe you have the personality and demeanor to do something like this.’ That I have the creativity and passion for food, and he was right,” said Lulaj. She even catered the Mayor’s 110th Albanian Independence Day dinner back in November.
But she is not the first in her family to endeavor this kind of work.
According to Lulaj, her great-grandfather Angelo Zagreda (anglicized name), was escaping communism in Albania and opened a Balkan market in 1970, also in the Bronx. He wanted to provide a taste of home to ex-pats like himself. Lulaj was beaming with pride as she spoke with the Bronx Times about her great-grandfather while sitting with a black and white portrait of a young and dapper Zagreda.
However, like any business, it does not come without its challenges. Excluding hair and nail salons, DUA is one of seven exclusively woman-owned establishments in Little Italy, an area in the Belmont section with no shortage of storefronts. Due to its more than a century-old history and businesses passed down through the generations, the area is male dominated.
During the interview, a fellow vendor interrupted the conversation to hand Lulaj a dessert pizza and said, “Try that. Let me know what you think.” She kindly nodded, said “thank you,” and continued with the conversation. And while that transaction may seem innocent enough, the man soon returned and once again interrupted Lulaj to ask her thoughts. She gracefully ignored the question and continued with the interview before the vendor went on his way.
“I feel like I’m pitied a little bit because I’m young and I’m a woman,” she said.
Lulaj is currently trying to help her fellow vendors — the majority of whom are older — increase their social media presence, and while some are open to the idea, others reject the advice. Yet, anyone who has been on TikTok knows that marketing on social is the way to go, especially with food. Since opening last March, DUA has gained almost 5,000 followers on Instagram and more than 5,000 on TikTok.
“Break the glass ceiling and keep it going no matter how much people try to put you down — especially in a male-dominated industry,” she said. “Don’t let it get to you, don’t take it personal.”
DUA will be celebrating its one-year anniversary on March 26 with free zeppoles for those who come by to celebrate. Lulaj is also in the midst of creating her own zeppole mix so patrons can replicate her recipe at home.
Reach ET Rodriguez at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes